BLIND AMBITION WINS IDITAROD

IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 12:

The Last Mile.

SOURCE: NOME, Alaska — Finally, from the darkness, came the dogs. They loped across the finish line, fell into the snow and wiped the ice from their eyes.

The winning musher, his face barely visible inside a hood, trotted among them, patting their heads. Good dogs. Good job. From behind makeshift fences, shivering fans whooped and hollered, shattering the stillness of downtown Nome. It was 1:34 in the morning Friday. We had a winner.

“ALASKA!” someone yelled. “WHERE THE MEN WIN THE IDITAROD — AND THE WOMEN TURN BACK!”

“WHOOOOOOO!” the crowd answered.

And so it ends, between two telephone poles on Front Street, the Last Great Race on Earth — with drama and controversy, the way it should. The winner, the new king, is former champion Rick Swenson, a gruff, mustached, 40-year-old musher who was dumb enough to risk death, smart enough to avoid it, and fed up enough to walk through a blizzard and pull the dogs — that’s how much he wanted this victory. And that’s how much he wanted to beat Susan Butcher, his arch-rival, who was leading the race until 71 miles from the finish, before a storm forced her and other mushers to return to shelter — and gave Swenson his opening. For six years he had been hearing about women’s victories in the Iditarod, and for much of that time he was made to feel guilty. “What’s the deal, Rick?” the macho types would ask, gulping another beer. “You won this thing four times. How come these women keep beating you?”

Maybe a Wall Street exec would say, “Now, gentlemen, the women earn it the same as the men.” And, of course, they do. But this is not Wall Street. Stockbrokers don’t cook meat for their dogs, sleep outside in sled bags and snowshoe for miles in a blinding storm. Survival is the currency here in the Lonely Country. And Swenson was going to prove himself by surviving this race — and winning it. His chilling odyssey over the final 23 hours will go down in Alaskan folklore as truly remarkable. Which, around here, means all in a day’s work.

“Weren’t you scared?” someone asked Swenson in the bar of the Golden Nugget Motel, where he was already sipping a Jack Daniel’s and Coke, less than a hour after he had won this trans-Alaska sled dog race in 12 days, 16 hours, 34 minutes and 39 seconds. “You went out in a blinding snowstorm when almost everyone else turned back. No one could find you. You could have died!”

“Aw, hell, I wasn’t gonna die,” he snapped. “Not as long as I stayed on the trail. Besides, what’s my life worth, anyway? If I had to go back and listen to 365 days of that crap — ‘How come women keep beating you?’ Blah, blah, blah — I’d just as soon be dead.”

Like I said, this isn’t Wall Street.

No room for the weak

But it is the end. Which means a lot of things. Most of all, it means I can go back to sleeping in a bed. And eating something for dinner besides Hershey bars and coffee. It’s a tough assignment, the Iditarod, pretty much back to basics. Or as Old Jim Okonek, my trusty pilot, might say: “Bathroom? Use a snow drift.”

But, heck, my troubles were nothing compared with the homestretch of this race, out along the Bering Sea and deep in the treeless hills, where airplanes couldn’t fly and snow machines had to turn back and nobody had a clue as to Swenson’s whereabouts. Butcher had encountered him not far out of the White Mountain checkpoint. His hands were freezing, his headlamp was broken. She tried to travel with him, arch-rivals thrown together by danger. But soon she lost him in the storm. Her dogs were tired. She had driven them hard in the first few days, trying not only for her fifth victory in six years but also to set a speed record. It cost her. Several windstorms had slowed her progress. And now, with another one burning her face, she made a fateful decision. “I can second-guess myself from now until I die,” she later admitted, ?=but emotionally, at that point, my dogs could not endure another 55 miles in a storm.”

She returned to White Mountain and prayed for a change in the weather. Because without it, she had just handed the race to Swenson. And she knew it.

Swenson didn’t. He was still out there, poking around that blizzard like a blind man. Returning to White Mountain never occurred to him. What for? So he could lose the race, then listen to another year’s worth of drunks asking why he couldn’t beat the girls? To hell with that.

He pushed on.

Friendly fire

Understand what that means. It means walking in front of your dogs (the ones you have left) and pulling them along as you search for a stick with an orange ribbon on top — the only evidence that you are on the trail. Meanwhile, the whipping snow leaves you blind, and the wind — at a chill factor of 70 below zero — can rip the skin from your face. “I couldn’t tell what was up, down, sideways,” Swenson recalled.

But somehow, marker by marker, he made his way along the frozen flats and into Topkok Hill, pushing against the wind. He suffered frostbite. He was exhausted. Push on. Push on. After hours of this he came upon a shelter cabin on the far side of the hill. He poked the door open. And inside was a schoolteacher, sitting by a fire; his snowmobile had broken down.

“Wasn’t he shocked to see you?” I asked.

“Nah,” Swenson said. “He just nodded.”

Alaska.

Which brings me to an important point. The Iditarod, I have learned, is not really about the $50,000 prize. And it’s not really about the macho boasting that will soon begin, now that Butcher has been toppled. No. This race, first and foremost, is about Alaska.

How can I explain this state? It is an attitude, a frame of mind, the kind of thinking that makes men build cabins miles from nowhere, no water, no electricity, the kind of thinking that leads college graduates to abandon creature comforts and hunt for food, the kind of thinking that climbs mountains, hikes glaciers, welcomes strangers like family, teaches children to cherish nature, treats Eskimos and Indians and white men like brothers.

A quiet, simple, common sense. It’s the kind of thinking that makes a lost schoolteacher in a snow-covered cabin look up from the fire and simply nod at a musher the whole state is looking for.

It’s also the kind of thinking that uses snow drifts as bathrooms.

But it is magical. You can’t deny that. Before this race started, I asked a rookie musher what he wanted from the Iditarod. He said, “The privilege of seeing this land.” And you know what? He’s right. It is a privilege.

If I learned anything from two weeks in this state, it’s that America is lucky to call this place its own. You wander among these snow-covered mountains and frozen oceans and tall trees and rare animals and good, old-fashioned, terribly rare human kindness — and you keep asking yourself, “Does this really come with my passport?” He was right on track

But enough mush. And back to the mushing. Hours after Swenson left that cabin, he was alone again, lost in the wind, when suddenly a snowmobile appeared, nearly running over his dogs.

“WHERE’S THE TRAIL?(at)’ Swenson yelled at the driver.

“YOU’RE ON IT!”

“WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OTHERS BEHIND ME?”

“THEY TURNED BACK.”

They turned back? Swenson felt a rush. It was enough to get him over the hump and lead his team into Safety, the final checkpoint. There, it was confirmed: All the top mushers except Swiss-born Martin Buser were stuck at White Mountain, 55 miles behind. And Buser was lost.

“What did you think then?” Swenson was asked.

“I thought I just won the Iditarod,” he said.

And a few hours later, he had, the first five-time winner in Iditarod history. Weather made this the most dramatic finish in years. And weather surely cost Butcher her chance at a fifth championship. Despite an incredible team, she finished third (Buser came in a few hours ahead of her), and her reception, in the dark hours of the morning, was hardly a hero’s welcome — maybe 50 people. A smattering of applause.

She held her head up.

“Turning back didn’t lose me the race,” she said. “I made the decision not to continue. . . .

“Could I have pushed my team more? Well, my whole strategy has always revolved around dog care; the better you take care of them, the better they perform. Maybe I could have popped a cork, got them to do it, but I didn’t want to ruin their trust in the way I drive them.”

“Are you upset at losing?” someone asked.

She wiped an icicle from her eyebrow. “I really wanted to win. It would have been a cute fairy tale. We (she and husband David Monson) could have hung up the harnesses and not raced Iditarod for a while. We want to start a family. And I think, even with this, we’re going to do that.”

She sniffed. Butcher takes a lot of heat for preferring dogs to people. But here, for once, at the finish of a life- draining race, she talked about children over dogs. Nice.

Meanwhile, back at the bar. . . .

“How do you feel emotionally?” someone asked Swenson, who lives in Two Rivers, Alaska, as he nursed his drink. He grinned. His eyes rolled.

“I’m too brain dead to tell you.”

Don’t eat the moose

Which about sums it up for me. I’ve learned many valuable lessons on this Iditarod trail: 1) Never sleep next to snoring pilots. 2) Avoid showers without doors. 3) Stay away from moose. (In Unalakleet, a tiny village, they had a dinner at the church: “Moose stew, all you can eat, five bucks.” But I passed. One of them might be watching from the window.)

And 4) For those of you who, upon hearing of these brave dogs that run through ice and snow, now feel you must take your lazy pet and sign him up at Vic Tanny — well, let me say this. Before the race, I interviewed Joe Runyan, one of the best mushers in the business. He raises sled dogs at his kennel, dozens and dozens of top racing prospects.

“Let me ask you something,” I said. “And answer me honestly.”

“OK,” he said.

“Can any of your dogs fetch a bone?”

“Uh, no,” he said.

So there.

As for the race, well, let’s remember that it’s not over, that even as you read this, some of the 75 mushers who started this thing are still working their way across Alaska, from one little village to the next, with no hope of prize money, only the sense of accomplishment.

And that is enough. More than enough. They give an award to the last musher to arrive. It’s called the Red Lantern. And right now, the leading candidate is none other than Bill Peele, the 55-year-old North Carolina businessman who traded money against his retirement to try this race just once before he died. He was almost disqualified after one of his dogs ran away in the Alaska Mountains. He had to tie up his team and go searching. Not finding that dog could have cost Peele a $30,000 investment and a year’s worth of training. But as he set off that day, there were tears in his eyes — for the animal.

“If something should happen to him . . . ” Peele said, breaking up. “I just gotta find that dog. . . . “

He did. He’s still in the race. Back of the pack.

We’ll leave the light on for ya, Bill.

Me? I leave Alaska with a certain sense of gain — and loss. Mostly, my butt is sore from sitting in Old Jim’s plane for so long. All those stops. All those wonderful scenes. There’s a song they wrote about this race, a playful little ditty that I heard a group of schoolchildren perform along the way:

“Oh, give me a team and a goodly dog

and a sled that’s built so fine

and let me race those miles to Nome

One thousand forty-nine,

And when I get back to my home

Hey, I can tell my tale

I did, I did, I did the Iditarod trail.”

And I did.

Now.

Where’s the bed?

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